Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes during testing at Barcelona. James Moy/James Moy Photography/Press Association Images

F1 Season Preview: Gentlemen, start your engines...

It’s back, it’s in HD and, as Sky have been telling us, it’s live. Here’s the rundown of those on the grid this Sunday morning in Melbourne.

WHILE MOST OF Ireland will be soundly tucked up in their beds on Sunday morning – sleeping off the effects of another Paddy’s Day and a Six Nations clash with England at Twickenham – hardcore motor racing fans will be crawling from the warmth shortly before 6am to witness the first Grand Prix on the 2012 F1 season.

The sport has had its critics over the years. Authorities are still battling to cut costs and encourage overtaking in a time when teams continue to change names, drivers, sponsors, rules and allegiances.]

The new season will be the longest in the history of the series and will have no less than six World Champions on the grid.

Kimi Raikkonen, the last man to claim a title in Ferrari colours, is the latest ex-champ to return and he joins Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and, of course, current King Sebastian Vettel spread across 12 teams on the grid.

Here’s what you need to know…

20 races stretching between now and November

Yup, that’s right. Bernie Ecclestone, the man who controls the commercial rights in Formula One (and hence the sport itself), has had his way.

2012 will see teams touch all the Major land masses in its effort to become a truly global Championship. Starting in Australia, the grid will stop in Bahrain (last year’s event was cancelled because of civil unrest), the US – a stop off at a Hermann Tilke-designed circuit in Austin, Texas – before culminating in Brazil on 25 November.

Gone is the Turkish Grand Prix but fans’ favourites Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium), Montreal (Canada), Silverstone (England) and Hockenheim (German GP) all survive.

Drivers to Watch

Last year was not a good one for Lewis Hamilton. His McLaren team started the year poorly and the Briton found himself embroiled in a public spat with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa as well as several on-track incidents with other drivers as his title challenge faded far too early. He is back after a decent winter’s break and talking much more like the determined, upbeat character we’ve grown to admire. Watch this space.

Seemingly always bored and unamused by the world, how F1 has missed Kimi Raikkonen! The Finn has returned to F1 after a two-year adventure in WRC and, judging by his Lotus F1 team’s pre-season pace, the former champion has a decent car on his hands. Raikkonen is quick, he’s a race winner and for his pre and post-race interviews alone, he is worth paying attention to.

For more of an up-and-coming tip, keep an eye on Scot Paul di Resta and his Force India team. Anyone who tuned in last year will known that Di Resta was something of a rookie revelation and there is no reason to believe – following on from testing – that Force India’s steady, year-on-year improvements are going to stall any time soon. Di Resta mightn’t have been the biggest name  in 2011 but his consistent performances have marked him as one for the future.

Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany left, lines up a hit after team mate Mark Webber of Australia right, bowls a fast ball during a beach cricket match at St Kilda this week. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Team name changes

Don’t be alarmed on Sunday morning (or later for the replay) if you switch your TV and fail to recognise some of the team as there have been a number of changes over the winter. Again.

Team Lotus are now Caterham F1 on the back of owner Tony Fernandes’ (yes, the same guy now involved with QPR) purchase of Caterham Cars. Lotus Renault GP, meanwhile, are have switched to Lotus F1 Team, ending the ongoing dispute over who was entitled to use the name ‘Lotus’. Virgin Racing have also become Marussia F1, after the Russian car manufacturer upped its stake in the team.

The technical stuff

The term ‘budget cap’ continues to be mentioned in F1 despite Red Bull and Ferrari’s decision to leave FOTA, the Formula One Teams’ Association. The cars have lower nose cones this year, the FIA has clamped down on exhausts while helium air guns are now banned from the pit lane.

Winter testing was also cut shorter to allow teams organise a mid-season session at Mugello at the beginning of May and authorities have also stated that races can last no longer than four hours after the rain-delayed debacle the world witness in Canada last season.

TV Times

Irish motorracing fans will have plenty of choice for 2012. Sky have promised lots of bells and whistles on their new HD channel, which is dedicated completely to the series and will feature Martin Brundle and Damon Hill. Eddie Jordan’s shirts will live on through BBC’s coverage, which has been second to none in recent years, while Setanta Ireland will link in with the former to enhance their own offerings.